Dancing around Censorship


Editors of underground and traditional newspapers do their best to shimmy around restrictive policies





Call it the journalistic equivalent of doing the hokey-pokey: You put your good story in, you take your good story out.

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\n Since the U.S. Supreme Court limited high school students' free-expression rights in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, administrators have been giving student journalists the same old song and dance, asking them to put image-friendly stories in and take controversial articles out.

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\n But even as traditional high school journalists continue to try to two-step their way around administrative control, the new breed of independent journalists that have flourished with the advent of the Internet and desktop publishing are increasingly finding themselves involved in the dance, too.

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\nQuieting the underground tide

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\n Three Michigan high school students never thought administrators would censor The First Amendment until principal Larry Jackson handed them five-day suspensions for attempting to distribute the underground newspaper on campus.

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\n The American Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint June 6 in federal court on behalf of two South Lyon High School students after Jackson barred them from distributing their publication.

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\n The editors brought the paper to the Detroit high school \nMay 9 with plans to distribute the publication to their classmates.

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\n ''We give you all the information you want to hear, not only what the teachers will allow,'' the first edition of the paper said.

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\n The paper included articles criticizing adults who tell jokes about Arabs and Muslims and teachers who keep religion out of the school. Jackson was also targeted for threatening to slap anyone who carried out a senior prank with criminal charges.

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\n When the editors were spotted with the paper, administrators confiscated it. The paper's three editors were subsequently suspended for ''interfering with the operation of a school building'' and distributing the publication without prior approval.

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\n After Jackson refused to lift the suspensions, the ACLU filed a suit on behalf of juniors Joshua Woodcock and Daniel Schaefer, named in the publication as editors X and Y because of fears of administration retaliation. The complaint charges the school with violating the students' First Amendment right to freedom of expression and challenges the constitutionality of the school's prior review policy.

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\n Administrators attempted to silence another underground publication in California, where three Palmdale High School students were reprimanded for handing out hundreds of one-page underground newsletters that complained about their school's ''despicable bathrooms'' and ''inept instructors.''

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\n Juniors Michael Kinnon and Garrett Anderson were suspended in June after Kinnon refused to allow principal Michael Vierra to perform prior review of the Mushashi Holiday, citing the unconstitutionality of the practice. The federal appeals court with jurisdiction over California has said school officials cannot require prior review of independent student publications. The boys distributed the publication during break time without the required administrative approval and warned students not to read it in class.

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\n James Charlton, Kinnon and Anderson's attorney, said principal Michael Vierra handed the boys three-day suspensions during finals for a series of what administrators claimed were ''profane, libelous and slanderous'' publications that ''encouraged others to disobey and become disorderly.''

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\n A third student editor, Jonathan van Belle, was placed on independent study for the remainder of the year to avoid suspension.

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\n The incident follows previous suspensions for both Kinnon and Anderson for distributing two other underground papers.

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\n Charlton filed an appeal with the school district board of trustees in late June, claiming the students are protected from punishment under California's Leonard Law, which prohibits schools from reprimanding students for expressions that would be protected by the First Amendment outside of school.

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\n If the district does not revoke the suspensions, Charlton said, he is prepared to file a lawsuit.

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\nSilencing school-sponsored newspapers

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\n As censorship expands to underground publications, student opinions remain under fire in traditional school-sponsored newspapers and yearbooks.

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\n It was a front-page news article that caused principal Larry Lockett of Astoria High School in Oregon to order the quiet removal of all copies of The Astoria Post in June.

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\n The article exposed an inconsistency in the disciplinary policy for student athletes. In the piece, authors Nicolle Silva and Sara Alsbury reported on two students who were caught in violation of drug laws, yet still allowed to compete in athletic events without any consequence. The school's policy states that a one-week suspension from sporting events is the minimum punishment for a first violation.

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\n About 100 copies, including issues for other schools, were removed the day after the paper was released. Lockett claimed that he confiscated the papers not because of the article, but because of a personnel issue. He also said the papers did not meet academic standards, citing flawed organization and formatting.

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\n The Society of Professional Journalists of Oregon has voiced its concern for Astoria students' free-press rights. Although the chapter agreed that the article needed revision, the group argued that the flawed prose was not a legitimate reason to seize the papers. The organization has sent a letter to Lockett requesting that the article be printed when school resumes in the fall.

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\n At Jefferson High School in Michigan, the staff of the Bear Facts wanted to publish just that: the bare facts about four school board candidates in the upcoming election.

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\n Adviser Dave Sontag said the principal thwarted their efforts when he told staff members they could not print the profiles because school funds could not be used in school board elections.

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\n Sontag said that motivation for the censorship swirled around the paper's earlier coverage of community leader Jeff Andring, who started the Jefferson Action Committee, an administration-watchdog group, after a property tax was enacted last September to supplement education funds. Sontag said the superintendent viewed the profile as advocacy for Andring's election to the school board.

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\n The subsequent censored feature on all four candidates slated for the last issue of the year included names, occupations, goals as potential school board members and their photos. After the principal pulled the article, students decided to run white space on the front page instead of filler.

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\n ''I know what we can do and what we can't do,'' said Sontag, an adviser of 20 years who received a letter of reprimand for the incident. ''But running a darn feature story on the people running for school board that gets censored? That's ridiculous.''

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\n The series of incidents involving the school board were not the first for Sontag. Administrators had previously objected to an article about winter apathy and a profile on two computer experts.

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\n ''It's just one thing after another,'' Sontag said.

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\n The students are not pursuing the matter.

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\n Further south at Hastings High School in Texas, the staff of another newspaper named The Bear Facts was also facing censorship. At the Houston school, an article about alternative lifestyles delayed publication of the school newspaper for several weeks when principal David Holmquist censored a two-page spread about the stereotypes and abuse that gay and lesbian teens are confronted with daily.

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\n The article, slated for the April edition, never ran after administrators asked the editors to change the names of the students who were interviewed for the feature, even though the staff had both the students' and their parents' permission to use their names. The staff complied, but Holmquist ultimately decided to pull the article because of its controversial content.

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\n Houston's ABC affiliate covered the story and posted the censored article on its Web site along with a message board for comments. More than 1,000 messages had been posted one month after the May broadcast.

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\n Editor Askari Mohammad said the paper combined its April and May editions because of the delay due to the censorship. The combined issue included an editorial criticizing the administration for pulling the original article.

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\n Although this was not the first time the editors butted heads with administrators -- the paper has criticized the school's use of Social Security numbers on student identification cards and pressured administrators to stop suspensions for spiked hair -- the editors have decided to move on and not pursue the matter in court.

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\n ''I hope the road to fighting censorship of high school newspapers doesn't stop here,'' Mohammad said. ''I'd like to think that what we did was just break the ice. And I hope that future staffs -- not just those at our high school, but all schools everywhere else -- continue to fight the struggle.''

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\nCensoring the school yearbook

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\n It's not only newspapers that are fighting back -- yearbook staffs are also feeling pressure from controlling administrators.

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\n Only 19 miles away in Katy, Texas, administrators at a suburban Houston high school told Robbie McMillin that coming out was not appropriate. At least not in the yearbook.

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\n The Panorama yearbook was already printed and set for distribution when the 17-year-old Cinco Ranch High School student was asked to remove his 900-word article, written in response to the prompt ''First Experiences.''

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\n The problem began when the publishing company delivered the book on May 15. Co-editor McMillin and the staff discovered several corrections had not been made and the cover color was wrong. Before the staff sent it back to be reprinted, principal Lowell Strike reviewed the contents and asked McMillin to remove several articles including his own autobiographical column.

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\n Strike raised concerns about a listing of the school's demographics, an article on how to hold a s


Fall 2002, reports